Eritrean women fleeing their country's oppressive regime are increasingly finding themselves the repeat victim of abuse, exploitation and violence once outside their homeland, a new report by a women's rights group has found. The report titled 'Letters from Eritrea: Refugee Women Tell Their Stories' was compiled by the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) and released earlier this month. It seeks to provide a backdrop as to why the women left, as well as their experiences leaving Eritrea and while living as refugees in their host countries.
SIHA collected the testimonies of 15 women during its research currently living in Sudan, Kenya and Uganda.
The deeply personal stories highlight the often traumatic circumstances surrounding women's departure from their homeland, which is further compounded by economic hardship and ongoing rights abuses suffered in their host countries.
"Kedusan" told SIHA researchers that she fled to Sudan after her husband crossed to Ethiopia to avoid military conscription and she herself was imprisoned as punishment. After reaching the border she was handed over to a group of smugglers, one of whom raped her in front of her two-year-old daughter after they were left alone together.
She later fell pregnant as a result and although she says she reported the rape to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), she says she was offered little assistance.
She later managed to make her way to Khartoum where she found work, but when her husband came to find her he abandoned her after learning about the rape and pregnancy.
In March 2012, Kedusan gave birth to a baby boy and despite the traumatic circumstances of his conception, she says she loved him as any mother. Six months later he fell ill and died, leaving her devastated.
"I loved him very much; he had suffered so much with me and was completely innocent", she said.
"I don't want to stay in Sudan, but I haven't found a way out. I'm so upset about my baby son, but now I must focus all of my energy on my daughter. I only want for her to be happy and healthy."
NO SAFE HAVEN:
According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), some 3,000 Eritreans leave their country every month fleeing the oppressive conditions imposed by the dictatorial regime in Asmara, including indefinite military service, religious and ethnic persecution, as well as arbitrary arrest and detention. For most, the first point of entry is Sudan, although it's hardly a safe haven for new arrivals.
The local Rashaida tribe and other armed gangs operating in and around sprawling camps on the Sudan-Eritrea border are responsible for kidnapping scores of asylum-seekers and refugees.
According to Amnesty International, victims are then sold off to Bedouin criminal networks in Egypt's Sinai peninsula for various purposes, including the extraction of their organs. In its latest briefing paper released earlier this month, the human rights group detailed the horrific violence inflicted on captives in order to extract large ransom payments from victims' families.
A UN Security Council (UNSC) report found that Eritrean, Sudanese and Egyptian smuggling gangs and government officials collude in a sophisticated human trafficking industry estimated to generate $10 million annually.
In this context, SIHA says women are particularly vulnerable to gang rape, unwanted pregnancies, beatings, burns and other forms of torture.
SIHA says that a number of the women interviewed for the report were still too traumatised to speak openly about their experiences. However, the rights group says it hopes the testimonies contained in its report shed light on the hard realities faced by Eritrean women and provide personal insights into the struggles and abuses they endure.
"The stories of the women reflect the great risks they are exposed to while fleeing for their lives; dehumanisation and abuse by traffickers have become a norm in recent years through kidnapping, enslaving, sexual violence and organ harvesting", the report said.
It calls on human rights advocates and the international community to do more to safeguard and protect the human rights of vulnerable Eritrean women fleeing harsh conditions in their own country.
"Despite the urgent need for a regional approach to refugees, most Eritreans who manage to make it out find nothing but uncertainty at the end of the line, with no authority looking out for their well-being in the long term", the report said, adding that the testimonies contained in the report are reflective of the shared experiences of many female refugees once they leave Eritrea.
"Theirs are stories of abandonment - by the Eritrean government, by the smugglers who have promised to transfer them, as well as by the host governments and international agencies that have committed to supporting them at the end of their harrowing ordeals", the report said.
WOMEN'S RIGHTS IGNORED:
Despite being a signatory to a number of international treatises on human rights, SIHA says that in reality provisions to protect women's rights inside Eritrea are almost non-existent, with early marriage, domestic violence and female genital mutilation remaining widespread in the Red Sea nation.
"Besides economic hardship and repression, the social and cultural hierarchy deprives Eritrean women of equal access to land, resources and more importantly women have limited control of their lives as human beings", the report said.
However, one of the most insidious forms of violence experienced by women in Eritrea is sexual abuse and rape during compulsory military service.
The suffering of victims is further compounded, says SIHA, by the "culture of shame" around rape and sexual abuse, which renders victims impure and thus "unmarriageable".
It is for this reason many women either leave school and marry early or flee across the border to Sudan in an effort to escape entering national service.
"Tsega" told SIHA researchers that she crossed into Sudan with the help of a neighbour's son in 2011 after fearing she would be conscripted into the military. However, once arriving in Shagarab refugee camp he demanded money to cover his expenses.
"I explained that I had no money and nobody to pay for me, and that he hadn't said before that I would need to pay ... He just said 'nothing in life comes for free' and 'gave' me to a group of Eritreans boys; I don't know if they paid him for me", she said.
Throughout her ordeal Tsega was kept in shackles and drugged while being abused by her captors. She managed to escape about two months later and now works as a live-in housekeeper in Khartoum, earning 200 SDG a month.
Tsega has since learnt that her parents were arrested by authorities as punishment soon after her own escape and remain in detention as she is unable to pay the fine for their release.
"I do not want to stay in Sudan, but I have no other options", she said.
SIHA, which has offices in Kampala and Khartoum, is a network of civil societies active across east Africa promoting women's issues, particularly in post-conflict areas.